Convict Histories

James Caffrey (aka McCaffrey), (c1830 – 1856) (Reg. No 2463)

By Irma Walter, 2021.

James Caffrey arrived in Western Australia in 1853 onboard the ill-fated convict ship Phoebe Dunbar. In 1850 he was convicted of larceny in Kildare for stealing a cow and received a sentence of ten years’ transportation. His description was as follows:

Received from Mountjoy Prison in Dublin, James Caffrey, aged 20, a weaver by trade, single, cannot read or write, religion RC. Charged at Kildare with cattle stealing, 21 June 1850 – sentence 10 years. Conduct – Good at Mountjoy Prison – One previous conviction & Bad. Entitled to his ticket-of-leave on 11 September 1854. Quiet & well-behaved.[1]

[Note: Another Caffrey arrived on the same ship. John Caffrey, (Reg. No. 2464), born c1823, had also spent time in Mountjoy Prison, convicted in Kildare of stealing a pig. He left WA on 9 October 1857. Whether the two were related is not known.]

A Troubled Voyage

The Phoebe Dunbar was the last ship to bring convicts directly from Ireland to Western Australia. Many of those prisoners were convicted towards the end of the great famine in Ireland, when people were stealing out of desperation.

Like the majority of those taken onboard the ship, James had served time in the dreaded Mountjoy Prison in Dublin. This institution was built in 1850, following the design of Pentonville Prison in England. It had five wings connected by a circular administration area. Both penal institutions followed the ‘Separate System’, the theory being that isolation in single cells would encourage inmates to contemplate the error of their ways, a policy reinforced by mindless tasks such as oakum picking. Prisoners were taught skills such as boot-making or tailoring which could then be undertaken in their cells. Exercise was brief and carried out in complete silence, with eye contact forbidden. Individuals were kept apart in church on Sundays by means of individual boxes.

A journalist from ‘Freeman’s Journal’ was permitted to visit the Phoebe Dunbar before she left port with her 295 convicts onboard. He described the scene, observing that ‘such a number crowded below must be productive of the worst results. The unfortunate creatures, from their appearance, seemed perfectly resigned to their fate; many of them I observed reading their prayer books, and now they have leisure time, may, perhaps, be the means for mature reflection and a fixed determination to make amends for their past life.’[2]

The Surgeon Superintendent appointed to the Phoebe Dunbar was naval surgeon John W Bowler, whose report at the end of the voyage revealed his concern over the poor state of health of the prisoners as they arrived at the Kingstown Docks near Dublin. He noted that:

Two thirds of the men came from the Convict Establishment Mount Joy (sic.), principally young men, but of slender frame and short stature; my attention at first sight was attracted by their singular appearance of being pallid, dejected and careworn, which lassitude I attributed at the time to long confinement and the Silent Systems as adopted at ‘Mount Joy’, and that sea should afford a refreshing, a beneficial change in their condition by a change of diet and the sea air, but was doomed to disappointment for they suffered from the commencement of their Voyage more than ordinarily by sea-sickness, Dyspepsia and its consequences, and about mid-June a fever of an intermittent character spread amongst them and spread in an alarming extent commencing in some few instances with high inflammatory action demanding the use of the lancet and specially an anti-phlogistic treatment, but for the greater part the disease set in with great mental and bodily depression, sudden loss of muscular power and Dyspnoea to such an extent as to almost threaten the extinction of animal life.[3]

Bowler’s initial concerns that the convicts were in no condition to face the long journey to Australia were confirmed. During the voyage disease was rife, especially during the last month. Cramped and unsanitary conditions didn’t help matters. The supply of ship’s biscuits, a staple feature of ship-board diet in those days, soon became inedible. A total of sixteen people, including several child passengers, died during the voyage.[4] Two hundred and eighty-five convicts survived the trip. On arrival Bowler sent forty of the worst cases to hospital and three patients later died there.[5]

Bowler’s handling of patients and his diagnostic skills were raised at an inquiry at the end of the voyage. Insufficient use of lime juice to treat scurvy during the voyage was an issue. Nevertheless, Bowler was later appointed as Surgeon Superintendent on the voyage of the convict ship Lord Raglan in 1858.

The non-stop journey of the Phoebe Dunbar was completed in 89 days, with the ship arriving in Western Australia on 30 August 1853. The ship’s problems did not end with her arrival at Fremantle. The port was already busy, with the convict ship Robert Small having arrived on 19 August with 303 Irish convicts onboard, followed by two emigrant ships, the Clara, with 275 emigrants, and the barque John Panter, with around 50 passengers.

It appears that the Commissariat was not able to immediately cope with so many convicts, so the landing of the Phoebe Dunbar men was delayed for several days. Understandably, tensions were high and trouble broke out among the convicts, who were desperate to get on shore. Varying reports were published in local papers, with the Inquirer describing the incident as follows:

A disturbance took place on board the convict ship “Phoebe Dunbar” a few days since, during which one of the convicts was bayoneted in the thigh by one of the guard, and others slightly wounded. The “row” arose in consequence of one of the men having got drunk (it is supposed upon “medicinal comfort” purloined from the hospital), and assaulting his companions, who, retaliating, the guard interfering to restore order and arrest the culprits, were, in their turn assailed, and the results were as above. The ringleaders have been handed over to the proper authorities.[6]

In the same edition the Inquirer reported:


[From our own correspondent.]

On Thursday last rather a serious disturbance took place on board the Phœbe Dunbar, convict ship, when it was thought necessary that the ringleaders should be immediately sent on shore to the Establishment, and upwards of twenty of them were landed, heavily ironed, and bound with ropes. Several reports have gone abroad as to the cause of the disturbance, the truth of which I am unable to arrive at, consequently will leave it for some person better acquainted with the affair than myself to make it public.[7]

The Perth Gazette report suggested that the prison system was somewhat overwhelmed by the new arrivals:

On Tuesday last the Prisoners were all landed from the Phoebe Dunbar. Large parties of Prisoners are now stationed at North Fremantle and Freshwater Bay to be employed upon the Perth and Fremantle Road.[8]

It is hardly likely that the convicts landed from the Phoebe Dunbar would have been in a fit state for road works. A family story published in a 1907 obituary gives further insights into the incident, although the length of time that the convicts spent onboard the ship in Fremantle appears to be exaggerated:


The funeral of the late Mrs. Elizabeth Reddaway, a very old colonist, who died at Fremantle on May 10, took place on Saturday afternoon, the remains being interred in the old Church of England Cemetery, Fremantle. The deceased lady came to Western Australia over 50 years ago, with her late husband, Mr. H. Reddaway, who was Sergeant of the Guard to the convict ship Phoebe Dunbar. On arrival at Fremantle, it was found that no preparation had been made for the convicts, who were composed chiefly of Irish prisoners. It was therefore necessary to keep them for three weeks on the vessel in harbour, which, not meeting with their approval, caused a mutiny. Four English prisoners had been made constables for the voyage, and these the Irish convicts vowed they would kill, for one reason or another, and matters were in a very tight corner when Mr. Reddaway volunteered to go among them unarmed and quell the disturbance. This he was successful in doing after a short parley, and peace was restored. Mr. Reddaway left the pensioner force and joined the warders remaining with them until he attained the rank of principal.[9]

Some news delivered by the ship’s Captain was received favourably by settlers in the colony:


BY the arrival of the Phœbe Dunbar we have English intelligence to the 3rd June.

We are indebted to Capt. Michie for a file of English and Irish journals to that date. The most important intelligence is that giving us assurance of the continuance of transportation to this colony, which it now appears the Home Government never intended to discontinue so long as the inhabitants remain favorable to the reception of convicts. We have the greatest pleasure in giving publicity to this gratifying intelligence, which will reassure our brother settlers, give an immense impetus to trade and improvements, and increase the value of all kinds of property, since we may now rest assured that the future prosperity of the colony is secured against all risk.[10]


James Caffrey – A Brief Life in WA.

The following record from Mountjoy Prison gives details of James Caffrey’s trial:

Prisoner No. 159 – James Caffrey, aged 20 years, 5’0”, blue eyes, brown hair, fresh complexion, stout made. Committed by CH Tuckey, Esq., on 24 March 1850. Discharged on 4 October 1850. Convicted of stealing a cow, value £5, the property of Thomas Cullen of Bray, on 23 March 1850. Tried before Assistant Barrister and Bench of Magistrates on 21 June 1850 – Guilty sentenced to transportation ten years. Residence – Galway, labourer, religion RC. Ignorant, delivered to the Constabulary for Transportation.[11]

[Note: Bray is in County Wicklow, 20 kms south of Dublin. Galway is on the West Coast, in the Province of Connacht.]

His Record in WA

Received from Mountjoy Prison, James Caffrey, aged 20, 5’1”, labourer, single, light brown hair, blue eyes, round face, sallow complexion, slight build, no marks.[12] A weaver by trade, single, cannot read or write, religion RC.[13] Charged at Kildare with cattle stealing, 21 June 1850 – sentence 10 years. Conduct in Mountjoy Prison – Good. One previous conviction & Bad. Entitled to his ticket-of-leave 11 September 1854. Quiet & well-behaved.[14]

November 1853 – Three times placed on Bread & Water diet, once birched. Behaviour in 1854, Good – Excellent.[15]

26 October 1854 – Treated for Ophthalmia.[16]

27 October 1854 – Aged 21 years. Employed in the prison tailors’ shop. Treated for Ophthalmia (dysenteric form, affecting both eyelids), Tenesmus (bowel pain) & Dysentery – spoon diet. Discharged on 29 October.[17]

16 November 1854 – Provisional Prisoner, discharged on Ticket of Leave.[18]

4 March 1856 – James Caffrey was drowned at the junction of the Collie and Brunswick Rivers at Australind, while in the employ of John Allnutt of Australind.[19]

The Perth Gazette reported the drowning as follows:


March 4, 1856.- Another unfortunate accident has occurred in this neighbourhood. This morning a ticket-of-leave man named Caffrey, in the service of Mr Allnutt, of Australind, in attempting to swim across the Brunswick at its junction with the Collie to get the boat which happened to be on the other side, suddenly sank when about the middle of the stream and rose no more. He must have been seized with a sudden cramp. On the alarm being given at Australind by a man who was with him, but would not venture out to Caffrey’s assistance as he could not swim. Several persons ran across from Australind and soon recovered the body, life of course being extinct. An inquest will be held by Mr Eliot, the Government Resident, in the course of today.[20]

Marshall Waller Clifton of Australind recorded Caffrey’s death in his journal –

‘Mr Allnutt’s Man Caffrey drowned at the Junction [of the Collie & Brunswick Rivers]. Sent to Eliot who came up after our Dinner & He & I went to view the Body. Returned & took Evidence here then Eliot returned….Drew the net at Night. Best at Work till breakfast & then went to make Coffin.’[21]

[Note: Clifton Journal editors have referred to Caffrey as ‘McCaffrey’ in a footnote as follows: ‘James McCaffrey was subsequently buried in the Australind Cemetery, Grave 17.’[22]]


[1] Report by Surgeon Superintendent John Bowler onboard the Phoebe Dunbar, Convict Department Registers, Character Book (R18)

[2] Freeman’s Journal, 3 June 1853.

[3] Medical & Surgical Journal of Her Majesty’s Hired Convict Ship Phoebe Dunbar, 1853, (

[4] Medical and surgical journal of Her Majesty’s transport Phoebe Dunbar for 4 May to 21September 1853, UK National Archives, Ref: ADM101/253.1A

[5] Ross Shardlow, Phoebe Dunbar, Maritime Heritage Association Journal, Vol. 15, No. 4, December 2004.

[6] Inquirer, 21 Sept 1853.

[7] Inquirer, 21 September 1853.

[8] Perth Gazette, 23 September 1853.

[9] Western Mail, 18 May 1907.

[10] Perth Gazette, 2 September 1853.

[11] Ireland Prison Registers, Mountjoy, Dublin 1845 – 1852,

[12] Convict Department Registers (128/40-43)

[13] Note: Before his death, James Caffrey’s name appeared on the Anglican Church Register, No.50.

[14] Convict Department Registers, Character Book (R18)

[15] Ibid.

[16] Convict Establishment, Daily Medical Journals (M14-M16)

[17] Convict Establishment, Medical Registers (M13)

[18] Convict Establishment, Receipts & Discharges (RD1 – RD2)

[19] Convict Department, General Registers (R21B)

[20] Perth Gazette, 7 March 1856.

[21] P Barnes, JM Cameron, HA Willis, The Australind Journals of Marshall Waller Clifton 1840-1861, Hesperian Press, Carlyle, WA, 2010, p.497.

[22] Ibid.